How K-12 School Districts Can Best Use Technology to Communicate with Parents
Learn more about how K-12 districts and schools can leverage technology and online learning portals to reach parents, as well as best practices for developing communication strategies heading into the school year.
Remote learning has become the new reality for many K-12 students as this new school year kicks off, and along with that, come many new online methods of communicating with school communities. The remote learning environment also presents new challenges and questions for parents, as well.
The traditional methods of hosting parent teacher conferences and sharing information with parents at school district meetings likely won’t be a possibility for many this year. Instead, school districts and educational institutions will need to figure out how best to leverage the technology tools available to communicate with parents and assuage any concerns that may arise about their students’ learning.
We interviewed CDW’s K-12 education technology experts Wendy Jones, Pete Koczeras and Mike Peters to learn more about their recommendations for how K-12 districts and schools can leverage technology and online learning portals to reach parents, as well as best practices for developing a K-12 online communication strategy heading into the school year.
Assessing Parents’ Communication Needs
When it comes to establishing an effective communications strategy for parents and guardians this school year, Pete emphasized that the first step is gathering parent feedback. He explained that many schools and districts are especially interested in getting a pulse on the student and parent experience with remote learning in order to start the new school year off on the right note. He recommended that school districts begin by surveying parents and guardians within the community, and then incorporating that feedback into the communications plan for the year.
Pete explained that BrightBytes is one of the best survey tools on the market dedicated to the K-12 sector, and that school districts should think about using a few different resources to inform their decisions.
“Providing some video content and training I think is one strategy that we would recommend to district decision makers,” Pete shared. “Surveying their parents and combining that with other data [the district has] to make data-driven decisions is another step.”
Considerations for Choosing a Parent Communication Platform
When it comes to deciding the best technology platform to use for parent communication, school districts should consider a few factors. For some schools, using a parent portal within an online learning platform might be the best choice for streamlined communications. As Pete explains, the first step might be to assess which online learning platforms offer these parent features.
“First of all, does the tool even extend any functionality to parents? For instance, my kid’s school district rolled out a content filter last year, and I know for a fact that that content filter offers parent-facing functionality, but the school district hadn’t turned it on, which was really irritating to me as a parent,” Pete said. “Especially now post-pandemic, a number of tools have increasingly released parent-facing features… If we wanted to create a couple buckets, it’d be data analytics, parent-facing survey, online professional learning platform for your teachers, parent facing content, content filter, at-home controls.”
Both Pete and Wendy highlighted GoGuardian and Lightspeed as good options for parent communications. While these are not online learning platforms, they are powerful digital tools for monitoring student behavior and reporting back to parents so they can be apprised of their children’s activities during school hours.
As Wendy explains, “GoGuardian and Lightspeed can do parent reports on, ‘What sites have my students been to? How long are they on different sites? What things do I need to be aware of?’ If a student’s done something inappropriate, you’ll see something like Lightspeed has the ability for a teacher to record the screen so you can see they went to this, and they searched for this, and that’s why they’re in trouble. And you can send reports to the administrators and the parents….so there’s that behavior level.”
Sending out communications through platforms like GoGuardian and Lightspeed may give parents peace of mind because it empowers them to help their students stay on task during remote learning.
At the more instructional level, Pete and Wendy also shared that many online learning platforms, such as Canvas, are now integrating parent communications solutions into their offerings. This type of parent communication solution allows school administrators and teachers to reach out to both parents and students from the same online program, thereby streamlining communications.
Best Practices for Establishing a Parent Communication Strategy
When it comes to establishing effective parent communications during this unprecedented time of predominantly remote learning, Pete and Wendy emphasized that having a clear communications strategy is just as important as the selection of the digital avenues for communication.
As Wendy explains, the first step when implementing a new communications platform for parents is to let them know about the change using existing channels. “I think one of the things that we’re seeing is because communication is so tricky, being able to integrate with the student information system [is important],” Wendy shared. “You’ve got your students who have a nuclear family. Sometimes, I have to send information to both mom and dad. Sometimes, I have to send messages to mom, dad, uncle, grandparent…the logistics are so critical. If it integrates with your student information system, you’re ensuring the information gets to the right people.”
When it comes to alerting parents about a new communications channel, Wendy also emphasized that it is important for school districts to reach out to parents early and often about the upcoming channel launch.
“You’ve got to do it over and over again,” Wendy explained. “You start several weeks out and say, ‘Something new’s coming.’ You back it up. Being able to have multiple forms of communication. Send it out through the students, send it out through the teachers, send it out through multimedia. Because if you’re just going to turn it on the next day, it’s going to fail. And it’s truly going through and looking at your change management, identifying where your risks are: ‘What’s going to happen if we don’t communicate? Are we going to end up on the news?’”
Once a new communications platform is launched, Wendy explained that it is key to establish a knowledge base within the platform and to also carve out a space where parents can provide feedback.
“Once you’ve implemented it, do you have a strong knowledge base of frequently asked questions? ‘How do I go to do this?’ Really building that out step by step,” Wendy shared. “But you also need a place for feedback. ‘Where can we improve?’ It’s looking at that continuous improvement. When you roll something out, it’s not going to be perfect the first time … It’s having those cycles of feedback to be able to understand what is it that we’ve implemented … People are really good at letting you know when things aren’t working. How do you harness that for the good?”
When it comes to routine communications between schools and parents, Wendy suggested that school districts take a look at the relative weight of each piece of information. She explained that while it is important to communicate frequently with parents — especially during these unusual times and especially when launching a new communication portal — it’s also important not to overload parents with an excess of information. She said school and district administrators should decide internally what information is most important to relay to the community, and then move forward in terms of establishing the frequency and content of parent communications.
Addressing Privacy Concerns
As more school districts embrace online learning platforms to enable remote learning environments, it’s also important to assuage parents’ concerns about privacy and the data that these platforms may be capturing about their students.
Wendy explained that online learning platforms have privacy agreements that disclose how student information can be used. She added that beyond that, school districts need to decide where to draw the line when it comes to sharing student information online and that schools should make sure they are meeting all legal requirements when it comes to virtual classroom meetings.
Summing It Up: Use Technology Tools to Centralize Parent Communication
When it comes to using technology to communicate with parents and students in the remote learning environment, many options are now emerging. As many K-12 school districts continue with predominantly remote learning, schools need to think critically about how best they communicate with parents to better facilitate student learning and ease parents’ concerns. New parent portal features on online learning platforms can help streamline parent communications and make it easy for students and parents to find information all in one place. But ensuring that school districts have a thorough communication strategy in place is just as important as the technology itself.
Ultimately, Wendy emphasized that digital channels and online learning platforms can be powerful tools for school districts to communicate with parents, and that schools try to use technology in order to be as helpful as possible during this time.
As Wendy explained, “Parents are struggling right now. We can put all the systems in place we want. But if you have four kids and each of them has a different Zoom call at a different time, it’s crazy right now. It’s hard to be a teacher right now and it’s hard to be a parent right now … Information to parents is wide open right now. Are we making it easy for them? And that’s where we’re seeing the portals come in. We want to provide a one-stop shop for parents.”